Defending the public interest: Sor.Rattanamanee Polkla

Photo: Sor interviewed by media outside the Thai Administrative Court upon the filing of a case against the construction of the Pak Beng dam on the Mekong River.

Patriarchal norms dominate the Mekong countries, where women tend to be excluded from decision-making roles in river governance. Nevertheless, women are exercising influence, exerting power, and leading in highly effective ways.

Sor.Rattanamanee Polkla is one such woman. A dedicated public interest lawyer and co-founder of Thailand’s Community Resource Centre, Sor has worked on numerous high-profile legal cases over the past 20 years, many seeking to challenge controversial dam projects planned for the Mekong region.

Sor’s purpose is singular: to defend the public interest. As she says, “We’re working with the law, and law controls society, right? So, if we use the law for the community, we can protect them and support them to realize their rights.” It’s a fair premise, but as Sor reflects here, numerous challenges remain when it comes to achieving fair outcomes for the region’s rivers and the communities who depend on them.

By Melanie Scaife | September 22, 2020

According to the State of Knowledge—Women and Rivers in the Mekong Region report, the political climate internationally has become more supportive of women’s participation and leadership in decision-making. This is reflected in several frameworks and laws advocating for inclusionary practices in natural resource management—including water. Yet in reality, the pathway for realizing this agenda is often left to national governments, and opportunities remain limited for women to take up the decision-making reigns in any formal capacity.

Certainly, this has been Sor’s experience in Thailand. “For the decision-making process, either in the regulations or the law, we do not have a gender perspective in Thailand, where we still have a problem with gender balance. We have a lot of ministries with men in power, not women. Women are not the heads of government departments or Thai companies. Even in the villages, the head of the village is usually a man. This is a significant issue when we talk about women’s participation and leadership in work, in river management, and in society.”

Photo: Sor in the front left, with fellow activists engaging in a public participation forum on Mekong dams.

And yet, while social and cultural norms have worked to exclude women from decision-making roles within the Mekong region, Sor argues these same norms can be used to a community’s advantage in campaigns for river protection. “For example, when the community protests, when they hold a rally, they will bring the women in front of the protest rally, because if the police come to block them, with women out in front, the police will not try to use physical force, but equally women will not be violent. And so, this ‘weakness’ of women is very powerful.”

“Also, when we organise a meeting, we’ve realized that women have their own mindset, which considers the whole family, rather than just their own circumstances, whereas men, I find that if they have an aim, they tend to just focus on this aim. And so, we have many women human rights defenders working on our campaigns because when women speak, it is more powerful than when men speak, it’s a different character and a different message.”

Photo: Sor outside the Thai Administrative Court upon the filing of a case against the construction of the Pak Beng dam on the Mekong River.

Indeed, in contrast to political and corporate settings, extraordinary things are happening at a community level in Thailand, which in Sor’s experience is full to overflowing with women seeking to defend their communities’ lives and livelihoods in the face of harmful dam projects. These include the Xayaburi and Pak Bang dams in Laos, each at the centre of litigation filed with Thai courts in recent years. Sor has worked on both cases. For now, it’s a waiting game, with appeals awaiting determinations from the courts.

Photo: Sor poses outside the Thai Administrative Court.

Behind the scenes in these lawsuits, as well as in other community campaigns, is the determined activism of community women. It’s something Sor has seen first-hand in community meetings, where often most of the people in the room are women. “In our work, we use this opportunity to make an argument from the women’s perspective. For example, in a petition, we will say if a community loses access to natural resources, this will affect women, and when women are impacted, this impacts whole families.”

It’s a strange state of affairs: from government cabinet meetings to corporate board rooms, women are being excluded from decision-making processes that directly impact their lives. Yet within communities, where the rivers run, it’s the women who are speaking up, for they are the ones who care for their families and the river. Bridging this divide—between the decision-makers and those with the knowledge and lived experience of rivers, of families, of culture—is critical for the health and wellbeing of communities, but also for the the region’s rivers, of this Sor feels certain.

“In Thailand, we call the river ‘Mae’. Mae is mother, and like the river, women give life, and have the role of protector,” says Sor. “Women have the mindset of mother. And when you have a mindset of mother, you think about how you can protect your family, your people, your home. So, I would like to see the balance change between men and women in every platform, at every level, especially in decision-making. Because if we have gender balance, we can have balanced decision-making as well.”

Photo: Sor speaks to Thai military personnel attending a meeting organized by community members about the Mekong dams.